When I teach script analysis, I always admonish my students that there aren’t any “right” answers when it comes to reading plays. If there were, I tell them, then there would be no reason to ever mount or stage (or, see) another production of, say…Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
But for the opposite reason, I’m often leery of going to see my ‘nth’ production of an old chestnut—for although I’m a firm believer that there is always something new that can be found in a play that’s been done and done (and done), too often I am disappointed by the same old, same old. And so, dear reader, I must confess: I enter the theatre trembling with doubt.
Happily, no such disappointment awaits the viewer of either of these fine productions. In both cases, the directors and creative team have brought fresh energy and novel interpretations to these oft-produced plays. If you think you don’t need to see another production of either of these, think again.
Quantum’s Twelfth Night, directed by Karla Boos, plays out under the Bloomfield Bridge, against the concrete brutalist façade of (what I was told is) a former animal testing laboratory. The space is sparse, and harsh, the better to highlight the mad positions the characters in the story have taken up. This is a play with almost no sublety or nuance—characters seem to take up the most extreme position they possibly can, until they switch to another, equally hard-line stance. Boos’s cast handles this well, playing their characters’ objectives with an intensity and seriousness that allows for the comedy of the situation to ring true. Robin Walsh, as Olivia, is particularly fine in this respect; her shift from a severe, love-renouncing Lady to a giggling, squealing, love-struck flirt are delightful and unexpected.
But what earns this production a star in my book for bringing something fresh to the table is its handling of the Malvolio subplot. I don’t think I’m alone in finding the prank played on Malvolio a troublesome aspect of the script. Most productions I’ve seen have made this palatable (and humorous) by turning Malvolio into such an odious character that you’re happy to see him gulled by Maria, Toby, and Aguecheek. But the script does not fully support that interpretation—sure, Malvolio’s a wet blanket, but he’s also quite sympathetic. It’s the rare production that manages to strike the balance between finding the humor in the prank scene (allowing us to laugh along with the pranksters at Malvolio) and encouraging our empathy with Malvolio. Quantum strikes that balance, primarily as a result of Gregory Lehane’s performance in the role. Lehane’s Malvolio is no buffoon, he’s a fully fleshed out human, whose reasons for being a killjoy are connected to his loyalty and love for Olivia, and although there’s a lot of comic fun watching him prance around in his outrageous “cross-garters” with a strange grimace on his face, in the end our laughter (rightly) sticks in our throats, as he leaves the scene a deeply humiliated, rightfully angry man.
Speaking of men…PICT has mounted an all-male The Importance of Being Earnest (how’s that for a transition?). But it’s not what you think! Or, at least, it’s not what I thought (which was: “A drag Earnest? Could be fun, could be campy, should be funny, why not?”) In fact, the production is not, technically, of Wilde’s play, but of a well-conceived, thought-provoking adaptation by director Conall Morrison. And while it is fun, sort of campy, and quite funny, it’s also something else, which any production of Earnest ought to be: deadly serious. The play opens in an Art Nouveau Parisian restaurant (the stunning set design, by Sabine Dargent, magically morphs into a country garden in the second act via a bevy of strategically placed art nouveau lamps) where a louche Wilde (Alan Stanford), in exile after his imprisonment on charges of sodomy, wastes away his days drinking absinthe and lusting after young boys. The play itself seems to spring from his reveries, invading the café as if conjured from thin air, the boys from the bar returning as characters in the play, both male and female. Stanford’s Wilde appropriately first takes on the role of Algernon’s servant, Lane, and then, once the action picks up steam, he dons an outrageous peacock dress and hat and emerges in full glory as the haughty, judgmental Lady Bracknell. Stanford is brilliant in the role; his bloodhound face droops with disdain as he aims the Lady’s witty barbs with deadly comic precision. The rest of the cast does a superb job of conveying the comic energy of the script. Leo Marks’s lighthearted Algernon plays beautifully against David Whalen’s rawther stuck-in-the-mud Earnest; James Fitzgerald minces and flirts memorably as the besotted old maid Miss Prism; and Will Reynolds and Matthew Cleaver bring just the right mixture of sincerity and sendup into their characterizations of the young ladies Gwendolyn and Cecily. Their ultra-polite, tight-lipped battle in the garden over possession of Earnest is one of the funniest bits of verbal and physical comedy I’ve seen in a long time.
Most of us were taught when we read this play in high school that it has serious and lit/crit-worthy themes, among them, as PICT’s program note reminds us, the play’s insight into its culture’s valorization of the need to maintain appearances and social fictions (even in the face of unpleasant realities). The text of the play both demonstrates and mocks this idea, of course; but most productions, aiming for the laughs, put the emphasis on mockery and wit, and leave the investigation of the seriousness of that theme to the academics. This is one of the few productions of this play I’ve seen that makes us aware of what is at stake in Wilde’s project. Wilde presented himself to his public as a man perfectly content to live in a world of appearances and show, and it’s likely he was. But by framing the play as a projection of a fading Wilde’s fantasy—and by using an all-male cast to populate the characters—this adaptation asks us to consider a more wistful and yearning Wilde, one whose escape into the world of appearances is also a reaction to the spiritual and psychological exile imposed upon him by social prejudice and mores. It’s only in Wilde’s imagination that the comedy ends with happy couplings of handsome young men playing out fictive social roles; at the end of this play, he’s alone in the café, and the absinthe has run out.
[Note: This is a review of a preview production of The Importance of Being Earnest]